Charitable family law ABS encourages model for other practice areas

Hilder: Phone ringing off the hook

A not-for-profit family law alternative business structure is looking at other sectors where it could help vulnerable and under-represented people are not eligible for legal aid.

Affordable Justice says it can replicate a similar model in which the usual profit element of the fees is stripped out, without compromising the overall quality and professionalism of the legal services, identifying immigration and social justice cases as two likely areas.

Affordable Justice aims to fill the justice gap for women who are not eligible for legal aid by offering its lawyers at the lowest possible fee – currently £110 per hour plus VAT.

Director Lisa Hilder said the ABS, based at the Preston Road women’s centre in Hull, was continuing to expand its divorce practice and had been “constantly busy” with children matters since January this year.

The phone rang “off the hook most days” with enquiries, though not all of them turned into cases.

Meanwhile, she said the law firm was happy to work with partner organisations on how to work sustainably when clients have “low or no income”.

Ms Hilder said that as part of this, she held a seminar with immigration advisers in March, explaining the Affordable Justice business model and discussing whether it could be adopted in the immigration sector.

She said one potential challenge was the extent to which legal aid was “ingrained” into the immigration sector, with some firms viewing it as “the devil you know” and others finding the prospect of leaving it “quite daunting”.

For Affordable Justice to offer immigration advice, it would need to set up a separate ABS, according to advice received from the Solicitors Regulation Authority. “Why would we do that when we could enable others to adjust their business models accordingly?”

Ms Hilder said a grant from the Sam and Bella Sebba Charitable Foundation had allowed Affordable Justice to expand across the UK, offering advice online. The proportion of clients from outside Hull has risen from 60% last year to around 70%.

She said an extension to the building where they worked would be finished in the next six weeks, allowing the ABS to double its office space.

Samantha Harrison, a new part-time solicitor, joined the practice earlier this year, meaning there are now three solicitors, a paralegal and an administrator.

Ms Hilder said the creation of an online chambers – which she mooted last year – was still “possible”, but she did not think there was sufficient demand at the moment to “attach it to our practice”.

Meanwhile, Affordable Justice had “succumbed to the cost of living crisis”, resulting in a decision in April to increase its hourly rate from £99 plus VAT to £110 plus VAT.

Ms Hilder said the price rise, which has had “no impact on demand”, would be reviewed again next  April.

She said the cost-of-living crisis had increased the level of enquiries. “There are women who struggle to pay our rates but wouldn’t qualify for legal aid even if it was available.”

She added: “The demand will not go away, and if it is there, we can expand to meet it. We are able to target clients who need us and are able to buy our services.

“There are still a whole lot of women out there who could use and afford our services. We need to raise our profile to get to them.”

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